TS Eliot – Can parts of poems be more satisfying than the whole?
Poems explored: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Portrait of a Lady, Gerontion, The Waste Land and The Hollow Men
Because of the fragmentary nature of much of T. S. Eliot’s poetry and the need for concentrated attention to the many and sometimes disparate fragments that comprise the whole poem, it is perhaps true to say that the overall satisfaction is diminished in relation to the quality of understanding and pleasure to be derived from these composite parts. Eliot’s complicated and frequently ambiguous use of symbolism and eclectic literary allusions, often arrests the attention and requires careful consideration before these can be fully appreciated. Furthermore, the impressions address the emotions as well as the mind and the response to these must therefore be both personal and liable to change.
Eliot uses recurrent themes and preoccupations to unify his fragments, but these themes frequently merge and become difficult to identify or isolate, except by minute deconstruction of the poems. The narrative thread is tenuous and often absent and, as some critics have pointed out, there is a repeated bewildering shift of times and places; often without unifying central characters, drama, epic, or lyric. Eliot’s style therefore creates difficulties for the reader seeking a sense of argument or logical subject matter.
Although some of Eliot’s earlier poems do contain central characters (i.e. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Portrait of a Lady and Gerontion), these pose certain difficulties for the reader, because they are presented more as a free-floating consciousness or collective mind vacillating and shifting between ideas rather than a character with any sort of personal identity.
In Preludes, addressing his consciousness as if it were another person, provided Eliot with the quality of detachment necessary to explore the conscious and unconscious workings of the mind, if perhaps at the expense of cohesion and overall coherence. This is also why the three protagonists mentioned earlier are largely interchangeable.
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Portrait of a Lady both deal with the emotional and psychological complexities of the relationship between men and women. Both poems, in fact, have an overall lyricism and in parts are meticulously euphonic, as might well be expected from the title of the former. But a ‘love song’ is not what follows and, as a conventional lover, the rather comically-named J. Alfred Prufrock fails. His thoughts are a series of fractured images with no spatial or temporal stability. Prufrock himself has a tendency to see those around his as fragmentary; as ‘faces’, ‘hands’, ‘eyes’ etc, as well as contemplating himself in disconnected parts: ‘I have seen my head (grown slightly bald)/brought in upon a platter’ and ‘(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)’ and, most revealingly, in his melancholic fantasy: ‘I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas’. This spine-chilling image compacts much sensory disturbance into so few words.
The narrative thread of the poem is tenuously held together by negativity: Prufrock’s indecision and inability to rein in his fractured thoughts and squeeze ‘the universe into a ball/To roll it to some overwhelming question’. In this failure, he resembles Gerontion, but Prufrock’s question remains ambiguous and unarticulated. His self-conscious monologue frequently dissolves into bathos and he remains a remote, socially inadequate figure, forever circling around his ‘overwhelming question’, always on the verge of crisis, but never able to confront the moment because his thoughts refuse to cohere.
What is unequivocally clear about Prufrock is his boredom with his trivial social routine:
For I have known them all already, known them all –
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons
I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.
This fragment of detail is enormously informative about Prufrock’s life and social environment. Similarly:
And I have known the arms already, known them all –
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
beautifully illustrates his sharp visual memory but coupled with a sense of detachment and even distaste for the urban society in which he is doomed to grow old.
These fragmentary insights are immensely satisfying, but on the whole, Prufrock’s unresolved dilemma remains an elusive one. Without knowing the question, our emotional response remains divided and the only certainty at the end of the poem is that Prufrock’s isolation can only ever hope to find relief in the world of fantasy.
The narrative technique of Portrait of a Lady is similarly confused, although, as in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, there is a semblance of meaning and continuity that, on closer analysis, disintegrates into fragmentary components. Like Prufrock’s mind, the mind of this narrator hovers on the verge of moral collapse, which we perceive through his aimless reflections. Narrative sequence is approximated as we follow the young man through December, April and October, on his visits to the Lady’s drawing room, yet without being able to understand quite wherein lies the attraction or compulsion of these evidently tortured visits. Again, like J. Alfred Prufrock, it is not a personality but a mind that is presented and:
Inside my brain a dull tom-tom begins
Absurdly hammering a prelude of its own,
could quite as well have been uttered by Prufrock. There is also a similar, precarious holding-in-check of the emotions which occasions one sudden, subconscious rebellion into absurd fantasy. Although he is the narrator, he remains remote; his motives are obscure and his sense of responsibility to the Lady is negligible.
However, every cadence and nuance of the Lady’s voice has been captured and carefully exploited to render it not merely plausible, but a perfect composition. The verse is controlled and the modulations of the voice are taken up in the rhythm and rhyme. The Lady’s convincing repetition of words is then utilised in the rhyme to denote stress points, as for example:
‘Ah, my friend, you do not know, you do not know
What life is, you who hold it in your hands’
(Slowly twisting the lilac stalks)
‘You let it flow from you, you let it flow!’
The Lady’s metaphor contrasts with her action to capture both the idiom of her speech and the anxiety of her mind. Characteristically, the poem ends on two complicated and unresolved questions, so that overall, the narrator/composer’s ironic remark: ‘This music is successful with a “dying fall”’ could be epigrammatically applied to the poem as a whole composition.
Like Prufrock, Gerontion also dwells on life’s missed opportunities. His memories are fragmentary images or impressions without coherent sequence or location and with such thematic intermingling as to make them at times difficult to unravel. Images with religious, sexual and cultural implications tumble one upon the other to create a disturbing, non-cohesive whole. At times Gerontion’s plight appears to be synonymous with the state of post-war Europe, but—unlike Europe—remains without reference to any specific point of crisis.
The memorable paradox of ‘The word within a word, unable to speak a word’, referring to Christ’s incarnation, is all too soon undermined by the rapid leap to the contrasting ‘Christ the tiger’ image and ‘depraved May’; and the solemn Christian ritual of the Eucharist is debased by the incongruous cast of characters who follow; their names heavy with social and cultural implications and about whom one could speculate almost endlessly. Indeed, the invitation to do so isolates the passage into a self-contained charade. The ambiguities surrounding these characters are clearly deliberate as becomes evident later. But they are not as easy for the reader to dismiss as for Gerontion, with his evocative ‘Vacant shuttles/Weave the wind’.
The artful punning and literary allusion creates a confused picture of history having ‘many cunning passages’. With time, things become lost or distorted and disappointment ensues as the longed-for miracle of incarnation does not redeem.
Brief glimpses of a primal truth flash through Gerontion’s fractured thoughts. His despair, I think, lies in his inability to reconcile carnal and spiritual knowledge, which is possibly why the themes interpenetrate and would explain why blossoming May is ‘depraved’ and why ‘tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree’ (or the Tree of Knowledge—the cause of man’s Fall—and especially why Gerontion so poignantly asks: ‘After such knowledge, what forgiveness?’). Realising this, however, one cannot help wondering how much import might be lost by an inadequate recognition of the literary references upon which the poet so frequently and casually draws; an observation even more pertinent to The Waste Land. Finding a possible key to Gerontion is not reassuring, for Gerontion’s grim sincerity leaves no room for reassurance or illusion, and the whole poem is a series of kaleidoscopic impressions, some of which are immensely disturbing.
We view the ‘substance’ of The Waste Land through Tiresias, who is not, as the poet informs us in his notes, a ‘character’. Having been in the past both male and female, Tiresias is now a prophet—though with limited powers—and is now blind. All the other characters ‘merge’ in Tiresias, so that he becomes the central consciousness. Despite our previous experiences, this is an undeniably abstruse concept. What Tiresias ‘sees’ and experiences is a collage of disparate images and impressions that have no temporal or geographical location or point of stability, except in the nebulous mind of Tiresias. Eliot’s poetry both demands and deserves careful attention and frequently provokes a profoundly personal response that is not always easily definable.
We enter into the sterility of The Waste Land and almost immediately experience perceptible thrills of recognition in the fragments of conversation: Marie’s recollection of the exhilarating fear provoked by a recollected childhood experience is rendered poignant by the contrasting bourgeois monotony of her present life. Even more poignant is the glimpse of the ‘hyacinth girl’. It saturates the senses with images of wetness, fecundity, vulnerability and the pervasive scent of hyacinths. It recalls the beautiful myth of Hyacinthus and the solitary yearnings of the narrator of Portrait of a Lady. This intense experience leads to a moment of profound insight into the silence that lies ‘at the heart of light’, which is both exquisite and empty. It is a moment rendered more beautiful by being framed between the two fragments of Wagner’s romantic opera.
This careful positioning of the fragments is utilised to great effect by the poet. By framing the urgent plea of the neurotic woman (whose tones of anxious appeal are perfectly captured) between the decadent boudoir and the fragments leading to the monologue in the pub, Eliot manages to endow it with extra emotional intensity. The lovelessness of this relationship is confirmed both in the woman’s plaintive tones and in the evident lack of response by her partner.
The whole section of A Game of Chess is so well-controlled and portrayed as to render it the most satisfying of all Eliot’s poetry. It illustrates its theme and captures the claustrophobic atmosphere or failing or failed relationships which are given universality by the passage’s cultural and historical comprehension so minutely portrayed.
The barrenness of The Waste Land is depicted in so many ways, but surely never with such extraordinary clarity as in Section 5. There is no water in the waste land and by this time the desire for water becomes so intense that the imagination seems almost to create its substance. Short lines, word-repetition and careful rhythmic control merge to create an hallucinatory state, so critically poised as to be capable of producing the illusion of the longed-for water:
If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
A pool among the rock…
This urgency is maintained until the water is almost realised in the ‘Drip drop drip drop’ of the hermit-thrush’s song.
A similar creative achievement appears again in The Hollow Men, where the controlled metrical pattern, short, unpunctuated lines and repetitive, sibilant consonants unite to evoke both the dry, rasping voices and a trance-like, or semi-conscious state.
What appeals to us in the profound intensity of so many of these fragmentary impressions, is a recognition on a subconscious level, where language is merely a barrier to communication. T. S. Eliot’s remarkable achievement has been to explore and exploit his medium to successfully communicate his experiences. However, sustained description is difficult to maintain throughout the entire poems because such fragments of heightened perception must necessarily be restricted by the limitations of the language. A total appreciation of T. S. Eliot’s poetry therefore demands a close attention to detail and a willingness to pause and deconstruct the fragments that make up the whole poems.